Something in the Air Is Brewing
By Robert Simonson
It seems that no part of Brooklyn can be left untouched by its ever-striving culinary scene, even its microorganisms.
As part of his ongoing “Mad Scientist” series of limited-release drafts, Shane Welch, the founder of Sixpoint Craft Ales in Red Hook, plans to tame the wild yeasts swirling about New York Harbor.
“I was enjoying a crisp evening in the fall on the roof of the brewery,” said Mr. Welch. “After a couple of beers, I was looking out at the harbor and thought, ‘You know what I should do? I’m going to make a malt solution and put it in a sanitary petri dish and place it on the roof and see what kind of stuff comes into the harbor and grows in the dish.’” He did just that. Soon after, he was peering at the findings through a microscope. “It was amazing,” he recalled, “the blend of crazy, wild yeast. A very interesting spectrum of critters.”
Most of the time brewers employ carefully cultivated strains of yeast in the creation of their brews, but the use of wild yeast is not unknown. The lambics of Belgium are routinely produced through exposure to wild yeast, and other American brewers are trying similar approaches.
Still, the idea of conjuring beer out of the little beasties riding the Red Hook breeze does give one pause. Mr. Welch, however, has no qualms.
“Air that comes in from the harbor is hardly the air that you breathe when you’re riding your bike behind a New York City bus,” he pointed out. “You’re pulling the live microorganisms that might be living in the air, and you’re fermenting the beer with that. It’s not like you’re extracting the pollution.
“You get a lot of ocean currents,” he continued. “You get air from all over the country. It’s a sort of natural, ambient soup that is circulating in New York Harbor, which is a very interesting confluence of currents, because you have the East River, the Atlantic Ocean, the Long Island Sound and Harlem River. It stirs up a lot of interesting wild yeast.”
Moreover, Mr. Welch said he wanted to “get in touch with the flora of where we are” and work with a genuinely indigenous strain of yeast.
The brewing process will begin sometime in the next two months, with the beer to be ready this fall. “With these type of beers,” he said, “they generally take longer.” He will likely used a grain base of malted barley and wheat.
Once the beer is ready, Mr. Welch plans to put some of it in stainless steel tanks and the rest of it in barrels, as is common practice with lambic beers. Sixpoint is using some charred oak barrels custom made for the brewery. Mr. Welch expects the result to have some lambic-like qualities.
The beer does not have a name as of yet, which is unusual at Sixpoint. “Normally I think of the name and concept first and then work on the beer,” he said. “But I don’t have the nomenclature yet.”